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Giants Roundup

No more spilt milk, Part 1

Every time the Padres lose a game, Giants fans should get just a little warm, fuzzy. Not because it means there's a chance the Giants will make September interesting, but that San Diego could be mediocre enough to allow San Francisco to compete in the NL West next year.

Of course the idea of competing next year doesn't mean the Giants can clean their lockers at the end of September and then show up next April suddenly transformed into a winning team. In addition to a Barry Bonds (version 2004), the G-men will need to make a few shrewd free-agent acquisitions, which is asking a lot considering who is in charge of acquisitions.

Still, as ill-conceived as this plan of building for 2006 is, the Giants have painted themselves into a corner. Since they've already traded away most of their high-minors prospects in the past couple months, they might as well do their best to win now. So, for a moment, let's forget what they should've done and concentrate on what they should do now.

This week we'll focus on the Giants' infield.

Expected Departures: J.T. Snow's career as a Giant is closing; in fact, his career may be closing altogether. For a sack of Idaho potatoes, the Giants would put Edgardo Alfonzo on the next red-eye out of town. Hell, the Giants would let you keep the potatoes as long as Alfonzo got to take his contract with him.

2006 Projected Starters: C Mike Matheny, 1B Lance Niekro, 2B Ray Durham,
SS Omar Vizquel, 3B Pedro Feliz

Two things can be said about this collection of players, and neither is all that nice: They're either past their prime or they never really had a prime to begin with.

The two members of the infield who are not out-producing machines can see their best days in the rear-view mirror. Still Durham and Vizquel, when healthy, are arguably among the top-five in the NL at their position.

There's no such silver lining for the rest of the quintet. On any given day, the starting pitcher might have a higher on-base percentage than Matheny, Niekro and Feliz. Okay, that's probably a slight exaggeration, but there's a distinct possibility they could all fall short of the .300 mark -- in OBP not batting average.

As a catcher, Matheny gets a pass. The other two don't have a built-in excuse.

Using the metric VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), Niekro ranks as the 18th best first baseman in the National League. If Feliz were playing 3B, he'd also rank 18th. Considering only 16 teams play in the NL, that's bad.

At third base, the Giants may be stuck with what they have. Their farm system can't offer a better alternative and the crop of free agents who man the hot corner is, to say it nicely, unremarkable. Among the potential signees, Bill Mueller and Joe Randa would both be upgrades, but moderate ones at that. Regardless, the Giants' brass felt Feliz was good enough to step in for Bonds so he'll probably get the nod here as well.

The real problem lies is on the other side of the diamond anyway. Major League Baseball is rife with first baseman lethal with a piece of lumber in their hands not having one on your squad puts you at a significant disadvantage. Niekro's .304 OBP is reminiscent of a utility infielder during the dead ball era, not a starting 1B in the time of BALCO.

Free agency is the obvious place to look for a replacement, and the most economical option comes in the form of Oakland's Erubiel Durazo. This signing certainly doesn't come without risk, however. From 1999-2004, Durazo consistently produced at a rate worthy of an everyday first baseman. 2005 has been a disaster though. After a sluggish start, he underwent Tommy John surgery and isn't expected to return this season. As either a first baseman or designated hitter, lingering arm problems are unlikely, but as with all injuries, recovery is never guaranteed. The silver lining is that his injury means that whatever team signs him will get a discounted price.

Of course, if the Giants or any NL team is interested, they'll also have to make sure he can still handle first base. Durazo's been a full-time designated hitter for the past three years, and it's reasonable to think he may have tacked on a few pounds now that he only leaves the bench five times a game on good days.

The rest of the free agent first basemen are of little consequence, so any other outside help would come via a trade. Mike Sweeney, as is the case with all of the Royals who earn more than the league minimum, is being shopped. Lyle Overbay and Chad Tracy could also be changing homes, as they're blocking the path of prospects Prince Fielder and Conor Jackson respectively. Still, it's unclear what these ballclubs would ask the Giants for in return. Sabean has already pillaged the farm system in the Randy Winn and LaTroy Hawkins maneuvers so they simply may not have the assets to acquire either player.

The last and most risky option would be for the Giants' to take their one legitimate hitting prospect, Todd Linden, and insert him as Niekro's platoon partner. This would certainly be asking a lot of the youngster, but looking at the Giants' projected lineup for 2006, he may not get regular at-bats otherwise. The majority of his playing time would be at first base, but his glove could also be used to regularly spell the elder statesman in the outfield.

Niekro has one of the most lopsided platoon-splits (.575 OPS vs. RHP, 1.094 vs. LHP) you'll ever find in baseball and used correctly (i.e. never facing right-handed pitching) he could make up one-half of an effective first-base duo.

Whether Linden is up for the challenge is debatable as well. He's posted an OPS of 1.118 over the past week so it's possible he's finally made the adjustment to major league pitching. But he still strikes out in more than one-third of his at-bats and his walk rate since being promoted has plummeted. The final month of the season should provide some clue to whether Linden would be up for such a challenge.

If not, Durazo murders right-handed pitching too.

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